As a rule, a 2-year-old maiden race on turf at Saratoga is not the launchpad for the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Rick Dutrow has never been accused of being overly concerned with the rules.
Following an improbable path that most recently featured a resounding victory in the March 29 Florida Derby, Big Brown is now among the favorites for America's most famous horse race, which is now just over one month away.
Big Brown began his career on the turf at Saratoga Sept. 3 for owner Paul Pompa and trainer Patrick Reynolds, who we hope managed to cash a ticket or two when the son of Boundary tow-roped a 10-horse field of maidens, drawing off down the stretch to win by an eye-opening 11 1/4 lengths and paying $31.40 to win.
The victory was on the Spa's closing-day card, when the Bill Mott-trained Majestic Warrior won the featured Hopeful Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths and moved to the forefront of early contenders for the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
Both horses attracted the attention of some of the industry's most discerning eyes. John Magnier's Coolmore operation, always on the lookout for future stallion prospects, cut a deal with New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, Majestic Warrior's owner and breeder, to buy a half-interest in the son of A.P. Indy shortly after that Grade 1 triumph. No price was disclosed, but the buzz around the deal put the value of the colt well in excess of $20 million. Majestic Warrior remained under the care of Mott, who despite his Hall of Fame credentials has never had a serious candidate for the Kentucky Derby.
Less than two weeks after his maiden win, a majority interest in Big Brown was purchased by IEAH Stables and the colt was turned over to Dutrow, who would likely need to climb over a number of dead bodies before joining Mott in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Big Brown's price was not disclosed, either, but it most assuredly was far less than what Coolmore paid for its half interest in Majestic Warrior.
Since Sept. 3, Big Brown has taken both of his subsequent starts: an off-the-turf mile allowance race March 5 at Gulfstream Park that he won by 12 3/4 lengths, and the Florida Derby, which resulted in a five-length wire-to-wire victory.
Majestic Warrior, on the other hand, has gone 0-for-3 since being sold, failing to hit the board and suffering double-digit losses in the Champagne, Louisiana Derby, and Florida Derby.
Big Brown has been plagued with quarter cracks in two feet that caused Dutrow to detour him from his original goals: the Pilgrim Stakes on the turf at Belmont last Sept. 29 and the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Monmouth Park Oct. 26. But after some time off, the colt began picking up his feet in miraculous fashion while training at Palm Meadows in South Florida this winter, even outworking the graded stakes winner Diamond Stripes on one occasion. The latter, incidentally, buoyed Big Brown's Florida Derby chances when he won the Group 1 Godolphin Mile on the Dubai World Cup program earlier in the day March 29.
Following Big Brown's huge allowance win at Gulfstream, Dutrow and the IEAH management team decided to point the colt for the Florida Derby, which came up weak and included only two graded stakes winners: the aforementioned Majestic Warrior and Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes winner Smooth Air.
Big Brown overcame the outside post position in the field of 12, with jockey Kent Desormeaux gunning the colt toward the front in a very short run to the first turn. He set extremely fast fractions and kept on going without ever being serious threatened. If Dutrow and his veterinarian can keep Big Brown healthy, the colt will be a serious threat to win the Kentucky Derby, despite his relative lack of racing experience.
Dutrow has plenty of big-time experience, having won three Breeders' Cup races, including the 2005 Classic with Horse of the Year Saint Liam. The 48-year-old son of the late Maryland trainer Dick Dutrow has had several run-ins with racing officials, however, and served a 60-day suspension in 2005 for breaking medication and claiming rules. Last year, he was suspended 14 days for violating the terms of that 2005 suspension.
For owners who want results, Dutrow is as good as they come. He is consistently ranked among the trainers with the highest winning percentage, and has a knack for moving horses up after acquiring them from other trainers.
You might not like Rick Dutrow, but you've got to respect his chances to break through May 3 with Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992-2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.